Back in 1992, a certain New York real-estate mogul told a reporter from New York magazine that you have to treat women “like shit.” That was a perfect summary of his philosophy, but it may be an even better descriptor for the way many women treat themselves—or, rather, how they’re treated by a persistent, harping, critical voice in their head. That critical voice, as it happens, is a fixture in the minds of an astonishing number of women, myself included.
You’ll never be good enough, the voice often whispered to me, making it difficult to focus on my work. Sooner or later, I began to wonder how this voice-that-won’t-stop got inside my head and into the minds of so many other women I’d talked to. It turns out that such an “inner critic,” as it’s called, has everything to do with what women hear around them all the time, including the sorts of messages spewed by that real-estate mogul turned president. It’s a phenomenon that matters a great deal at this political moment and should get far more attention than it does—but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Trust me when I say that I derive no pleasure from quoting our current president, but in this case I shouldn’t avoid it. He’s a veritable fountainhead of the sort of unsavory and unsettling messages that women encounter as they go about their regular lives. To take but one example from an apparently limitless source, Donald Trump has a penchant for lambasting women who don’t look like models. (The horror!) When New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote critically of his finances, for instance, he clipped the article, circled her picture, and mailed it to her along with a note that said, “The face of a dog!” Decent he may not be, but he does give unambiguous voice to the (usually more subtle) ways in which women are judged for their looks and often dismissed as incompetent because of them.
This is a big deal, because we humans naturally absorb our environment and often inwardly rehash stuff we hear around us. In other words, what we take in from our surroundings influences our “inner speech,” the conversations we have with ourselves in the silence of our minds. According to psychology professor Charles Fernyhough, author of the acclaimed book The Voices Within, our inner speech is shaped by the social worlds we inhabit. “Other people’s words get into our heads,” he explains. We absorb an assortment of verbal cues from others and those cues turn out to influence the way we talk privately to ourselves.
This unconscious process of sponging up messages from our environment explains a whole lot about why women develop such wicked inner critics.